EUNICE, W.Va. — Eunice should have been Becky Rectenwald’s place to settle. The dust settled there instead.
Rectenwald, 58, moved to the former Raleigh County mining town from Marmet nearly four years ago for cleaner air and a larger yard for her dogs as she kept taking care of her mother.
Eight months ago, at 15% lung capacity with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and bronchitis, Rectenwald left her 79-year-old mother in Eunice in the care of her 18-year-old granddaughter.
The filters on Rectenwald’s oxygen machine and ventilator had turned black. She had to go.
“The way we’ve gotta live, it’s sad,” Rectenwald says. “I can’t be with my family because of it.”
The portable ventilator that Rectenwald uses did nothing to obscure her words of desperation as she sat wedged between the ventilator and a picnic table at Marsh Fork High School Memorial Park on an unseasonably hot spring evening. Rectenwald made the trek down Coal River Road with her sister, with whom she’s been staying in Elkview more than an hour away.
She was surrounded under the pavilion by a dozen former neighbors.
They were there to clear the air, too.
“We’d just like to have the dust cut down,” Sandra Stewart, 71, said.
Black Eagle Mine
Stewart’s house of 32 years on the northern edge of Eunice sits nearest the coal pile for the Marfork’s Coal Company’s Black Eagle underground mine about 1,000 feet away.
Eunice residents said the mine has wreaked havoc on their health and homes since soon after operations began in 2018, its coal dust pervading their lungs and living rooms, its ventilation fans whirring so loudly that talking outside became impossible, its blasting knocking pictures off walls and damaging house foundations.
Many of the community’s residents living closest to the Black Eagle mine have been gathering for weekly meetings since April to talk about the mine and what to do about it.
The organizer of the meetings, Shelia Walk, has lived 42 of her 49 years in Eunice.
It’s home for her and her husband, who was a mine worker for 13 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and laid off. It’s home for her parents, including her father, a disabled veteran who has been having fewer asthma attacks since moving to a section of the community farther from the Black Eagle mine. It’s home for her 5-month-old grandson, who was born prematurely and has already had breathing problems.
Walk’s home was her brother’s before he died, so she’s not eager to walk away from it.
“I would love to stay here, because I’m never going to be this close to my family,” Walk said. “If something’s wrong, I can walk to my daughter’s (house). If I had to, I could walk to my parents’ (house). I don’t see us ever being able to find homes that close together.”
But standing at the edge of the picnic shelter facing her neighbors, Walk reached what has become an increasingly common conclusion in recent months in Eunice. “If they can, I would appreciate it if the dust and the noise would quit. If not, then they should relocate us,” Walk said to a smattering of applause from her neighbors.
Walk talked about Alpha Metallurgical Resources, Marfork Coal Company’s Bristol, Tennessee-based parent company.
If Alpha won’t pay them to move, the residents want the company to at least do more to reduce coal dust pollution, a change that would create a positive trend following what they said was an end to the mine’s ventilation fan noise pollution in April.
But Eunice residents said they haven’t been able to reach Alpha representatives, and Walk said no one from the mine has spoken to residents about operations there.
Alpha did not respond to a list of questions for this story.
“It’s like nobody even cares,” Rectenwald said.
Walk counted the number of homes in her section of Eunice nearest to the Black Eagle mine that house residents with disabilities. She counted eight of 11.
Across the picnic shelter, her next-door neighbor Rick Jones, 65, said he has to change his furnace filter often. “We don’t even get a month out of ours,” said Alleson Sneed, Rectenwald’s granddaughter.
Eunice residents said the quickly dirtying air filters have helped push their power bills to exorbitant amounts. They fear their property values are trending in the opposite direction.
The prevalence of fixed incomes in Eunice makes the community’s mine problem worse.
Annabel Aliff, 57, wasn’t at the meeting but would like Alpha to buy her out, too.
Aliff says she was driven to apply for the state Department of Health and Human Resources Low-Income Energy Assistance Program for the first time in two decades because of the rising cost of heating and cooling her home as she avoids letting natural air in.
“I hate asking for help, but sometimes, what are you gonna do?” Aliff said.
When Aliff moved to her home in 2002, there were cookouts and bonfires.
“I could even go and lay out in the sun,” Aliff said. “But I wouldn’t even want to lay in the sun now because if I went out there with suntan lotion on me, the dust would stick all over me.”
Aliff doesn’t have a vehicle but gets rides from both her sister who has been staying with her and Walk, her next-door neighbor.
“God blessed me with good neighbors,” Aliff said. “I’m just getting a raw deal with the mine.”
Coal River Mountain
The Black Eagle deep mine has had two mining permit violations since beginning operations in 2018, according to state Department of Environmental Protection data — failure to establish blasting signs in September 2018 and tracking spoil and waste material onto a state road (Route 3 or Coal River Road) in March 2019.
But two Alpha subsidiaries — the Marfork Coal Company and Republic Energy — have more than two dozen active mine permits in Raleigh County and a long history of permit violations.
The two subsidiaries have accumulated nearly 350 permit violations over the last three-plus decades in the Coal River watershed for offenses such as lack of sediment control, improper blasting procedures and mining activity outside permit boundaries. Nearly 3,000 acres in the watershed have been disturbed under mine permits over that span.
Total active and approved surface mining permits plus sludge dams compose 15% of the roughly 51,000-acre Coal River Mountain, according to Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a nonprofit group based in nearby Naoma that opposes mountaintop removal and other mining practices that have impacted public health and natural resources.
Walk’s son Junior, 31, is an outreach coordinator for Coal River Mountain Watch who has a house in Eunice and lives in Whitesville across the Boone County line. Walk said extensive mining activity has ravaged the Coal River watershed over the course of his lifetime.
Coal River Mountain Watch has opposed recent applications for new and renewed permits for surface mining on the mountain made by Republic Energy, saying dust from renewed blasting procedures would leave nearby residents at an elevated risk for cancer.
The DEP has approved Republic Energy’s recent permit applications, saying they met the state’s surface mining control and reclamation requirements, obligating the department to issue the permit.
“What’s going on here is a continuation over a century of exploitation of both the land and the people here,” Walk said in his parents’ backyard shortly before the meeting started. “Outside interests like the coal company that’s operating right over here have had their way with Southern West Virginia.”
Some residents would like onsite air quality monitoring but haven’t been able to procure any from the state DEP.
DEP acting spokesman Terry Fletcher said the agency has air monitoring equipment for assessments of federally mandated National Ambient Air Quality Standards at permanent sites.
The department’s Division of Air Quality will investigate dust and air quality complaints and take enforcement action when appropriate, Fletcher said.
An agency database of citizen complaints shows three about the Black Eagle mine, the two most recent coming from Eunice residents in early December about mine fan noise levels.
But Walk said she called the DEP more than 10 times to report mine noise and dust and never got an effectual response.
Raleigh County Commission President Dave Tolliver declined to comment through County Administrator Jay Quesenberry, who added officials had not heard complaints about dust or noise coming from the mine.
State Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, declined to comment, saying he was out of the state last week and could not communicate with anyone about the situation. Roberts added that no one had contacted his office about Marfork.
State Delegate Christopher W. Toney, R-Raleigh, could not be reached for comment.
Wanting to Go
There’s no sign of operations at the Black Eagle mine slowing down.
Alpha Chief Operating Officer Jason Whitehead noted steadily improving coal thickness at the mine during the company’s 2020 fourth-quarter earnings call in March and looked ahead to further mining there next year. An equity research analyst at the Benchmark Company investment banking firm observed that the Black Eagle mine was “ramping up.”
Residents say Alpha added a gravel road that runs along the mountain for more than a mile earlier this year along with at least one new ventilation fan.
Referring to Alpha, “(W)e’re getting our coal. We’re making our money. We don’t care,” said Rectenwald, whose father was a coal miner. “And it’s sad. It’s sad they don’t have any respect for humanity.”
Whether Alpha pays Eunice residents to move away, Rectenwald’s family is looking to pay their Eunice house off and start over someplace they can breathe a little easier — and together.
“Just go, just go, just go,” Rectenwald’s granddaughter Sneed said. “Don’t turn back. Just go.”
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